Uncle Lee's was born in 1979, on the site of a progressively deteriorating Eddie's grocery store. At the beginning, the building was half restaurant and half an excellent Chinese market that sold jasmine teas and gyoza wrappers, and less familiar products like almond powder, Chinese sesame paste and jars of fermented rice. (Such things were not available all over the city then.)
The store didn't take, but the restaurant did. Its interesting dishes tasted of ingredients that had been freshly assembled and cooked, the peppers were hotter than any around, and tastes were surprising, often explosive, and authoritative. There was a clipping in the window that described the chef's previous success at a restaurant in New York. He was terrific.
That was 11 years ago, and a lot has happened in the interim, including the transformation of those two city blocks into an Oriental-restaurant island. First, the Thai Restaurant moved across the street, then the China Palace moved next door, and finally the Szechuan Dynasty moved next to the Thai. FYI: The Golden Star has been there forever. See it in "Polyester"?
When we went back to Uncle Lee's recently, it was our first visit in seven or eight years. We were surprised by some changes, including a skylight in the ceiling, and a large goldfish-packed fish tank at the entryway. We found ourselves in a comfortable and quiet booth, and in an atmosphere marginally more polished than many neighborhood Chinese eateries, which we attributed to some restful beiges in the rooms and to the comforts of white tablecloths and cloth napkins.
We began our meal sharing around orders of paper chicken ($2.50), hot and sour soup ($1.50) and cold sesame noodles with cucumber and peanut butter sauce ($3.95). Paper chicken presented a logistical problem. The only way to open the two triangular aluminum foil wrappers was to pull away at the edges with our fingers. We did so, but were stuck with unpleasantly greasy hands. Then, finding that in any case the unremarkable, chopped protein contents lacked an identity, we swore off ordering paper chicken again.
The hot and sour soup, by contrast, was a stimulating and soothing restorative for a cold autumn's night. It had a lightly thickened, pleasant broth textured with slippery bits of tree fungus, long rectangles of bamboo shoot, coils of egg, bean curd and a -- of hot sesame oil.
The cold noodles constituted the most distinctive dish we tried, and our favorite, though we still managed to come away with some quibbles. What was good about them were some simple shafts of cucumber over the top, and a fine dice of Sichuan preserved vegetable that tasted intriguingly musky and odd, like a cross, say, between a black walnut and a turnip. Still, there was too much oil, too little of it tasting of peanuts, and a need for more onion and some chopped herb -- if not cilantro, at least parsley. We missed contrast and fresh textures.
We ordered two dishes from Uncle Lee's bean curd and vegetables menu: spicy kung pao bean curd ($6.50) and eggplants in garlic sauce ($6.50). In the bean curd preparation, big chunks of bean curd were mixed with diced fresh carrot, peanuts, green onions, hot peppers and something like a tasteless pickle slice that was probably cucumber. While the eggplants were delicious to an eggplant lover, someone without a consuming passion for them might have been put off by so many unalloyed, slithery, soft fingers of eggplant laced with so many columns of seeds.
We also tried a platter of duck meat Hunan style ($10.95), but were alienated by strident saltiness and an old bird. Fresh duck meat is lustrous and sweetly luscious. Old duck meat is neither. A quantity of fermented black beans may have caused the salt overdose, which the sliced water chestnuts, tree fungus, pea pods and scallions couldn't cut.
Sauteed double flavors ($9.95) used three slices of pale winter tomato to divide two preparations. On one side, sweet, mild shrimp that tasted canned met heated frozen peas, and on the other, crescents of onion decorated coarse threads of pork heavily salted with fermented black beans.
Had I eaten one dish all by myself, with a bowl of rice, perhaps I would have liked my dinner more. Sharing around, we found that everything tasted pretty much like everything else, because of a persistent, ubiquitous brownish sauce which caused the otherwise pleasant food to taste uniform and indistinctive.
We liked our cheerful and attentive waitress. Our only serious trouble came when we cracked open our fortune cookies. Two of us had nothing but cookie shards. No futures. Thinking our ends nigh, in response we looked hard both ways before crossing the street, and didn't curse out loud the man with the boom box on the corner.
Uncle Lee's, 3317 Greenmount Ave., 366-3333
Hours: Mondays to Thursdays 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 11:30 p.m.; Sundays noon to 9:30 p.m.
Accepts: * /- **
Features: Sichuan cooking
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